It’s time for my review roundup! I saw some pretty good movies in the last few months, but since I only gave out one four star review, my recommendation has to be the summer’s latest release, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. See that one, but also don’t miss Rocketman and Toy Story 4, my other favorites of this batch.
APOLLO 11 * * * (Dir. Todd Douglas Miller)
As a companion piece to last year’s First Man, Apollo 11 is an incredibly effective documentary edited, produced and directed by Todd Douglas Miller that seamlessly weaves together real life footage from the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 to create a powerfully immersive cinematic experience. Obviously it doesn’t take place in real time, but the effect is something akin to that, as we jump right into the pre-flight procedure, meet Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and follow them as they quickly get the mission started in the days, hours and minutes leading up to the launch. This is no talking heads documentary- there’s not even a narration, as the footage simply speaks for itself, video, audio and photographic. The film doesn’t have to manipulate you- the event itself was powerful enough that just to go through it with the men in the room has your heart beating at a rapid pace, much like their own. At 90 minutes, the movie makes its point quickly, reliving the journey with every monumental step, getting in and out before you even know it’s happened. The impact it leaves is less than than the actual landing, but only just. The film wants to make you feel as if you were there and to that end, it does. It leaves you breathless.
BOOKSMART * * 1/2 (Dir. Olivia Wilde)
This coming of age, night before graduation teen comedy is really nothing we haven’t seen before. Yes it’s about two young girls (these are usually guys’ movies) and yes, it’s directed by actress Olivia Wilde, in her filmmaking debut, but it hits pretty much every beat you’d expect from what can accurately be described as a female Superbad. The nice thing about this is how well acted it is by the two young leads, Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, especially Feldstein, who exudes a very likable charisma. There’s a sweetness mixed with a glimmer of mischief in her eye, entirely believable as an overachieving, high maintenance valedictorian in the Reese Witherspoon of Election mold (but the liberal version). Molly and Amy are just about to graduate and spent their high school years as bookish, social justice warriors and straight-A students who worked hard to get into Ivy League schools and are darn proud of their achievements and their activism. Amy is openly gay and Molly is on track to be the youngest Supreme Court justice in history (her words), but now they regret having not partied or goofed off once when they realize their lazy fellow students all got in to the same Ivy League schools without working hard for it (the issues of wealth/legacy seem to be uncharacteristically ignored by the uber bright Molly, who’s enraged and in disbelief about this). So the girls want to party hard on the night before graduation and get into all kinds of trouble, etc. From there it’s pretty formulaic- awkward sexual encounters, drug use, the obligatory fight between the girls when a secret is revealed. You know the drill. There are some nice moments of inspired direction by Wilde (a hallucinogenic stop motion animated doll sequence, a slow motion underwater swim through a pool filled with frolickers), but it wasn’t as funny as last year’s Blockers, another (superior) female focused and directed coming of age teen flick that actually delivered a new kind of message for these sorts of films. It may be worth seeing for the up and coming talent in Beanie Feldstein, but otherwise, Booksmart falls a tad short.
ROCKETMAN * * * 1/2 (Dir. Dexter Fletcher)
Coming on the heels of Bohemian Rhapsody, you can’t help but compare these two films, not least of all because Dexter Fletcher, the man who was brought in to finish Bohemian after Bryan Singer was fired, directed this film from the beginning. It’s also another biopic about a gay 70’s rock star from England, so the period and subject matter are going to be similar, on the surface level at least. But Freddie Mercury and Elton John are two very different men, and the colorful, stylized Rocketman captures the flamboyant, open-hearted spirit of its protagonist in bright, broad brushstrokes that leave you with a smile on your face from start to finish, and its extravagance is irresistible (especially as an Elton John fan, I admit). Taron Egerton stars as the icon, does his own singing and is made to look enough like the young Reginald Dwight to embody him completely, digging into the soul of the glam rocker from the beginnings of his success to his crash into rehab after two decades of hard living and substance abuse. The movie follows the formula you’re expecting, from early life to the highs and lows of stardom, drugs and affairs included, but with fantastical song and dance numbers in the style of a jukebox musical plugged in throughout (it’s easy to predict this turning into a Broadway show sooner rather than later). The heart and soul of the film is the relationship between Elton and his songwriting partner/platonic soulmate of 50 years, Bernie Taupin (played wonderfully by Jaime Bell), who met by chance as teens and hit it off instantly- the legendary partnership would spawn one of the greatest back catalogues in all of pop music history. And boy does the movie know it- packing in as many Elton John songs as feasible, just about every one gets its due and a theatrical number to go with it, organized in roughly biographical order or sung spontaneously at the right emotional moment. With the subject serving as producer, this is an authorized version of his life, yet John still allowed himself to be portrayed unfavorably as his decline due to drug and alcohol abuse (and the wounds inflicted by his cold, unloving parents) persisted, and the energy and vivacity of the movie and the heart of the actors overcome the cliches in a fun, buoyant romp through his colorful life. You can’t help but be grabbed by this movie, and the bond between Elton and Bernie is heartwarming (if I was Taupin, I’d be moved to tears by this loving tribute to our relationship- you sure couldn’t say that about Freddie Mercury and any of the Queen band members). I already said I was prone to like this- as a big Elton fan and a traditional musical devotee, two hours of his hits being spread across a canvas in big, phantasmagoric spectacle is a pitch crying out to me specifically. It may not be the best music biopic ever made, but the celebratory tone combined with the affectionate, earnest generosity of spirit and performance leaves you moved to such a state of joyful, cheesy euphoria that whatever cliches might be in there? I just don’t care.
TOY STORY 4 * * * 1/2 (Dir. Josh Cooley)
2010’s Toy Story 3 was such a perfect cap on the now generation spanning saga of Woody, Buzz and the gang, that it was going to take something extraordinary to render a third sequel to the franchise necessary. So I’m thrilled to say that not only does Toy Story 4 justify its existence, but it yet again moves these characters to a new place along perfectly natural, organic, evolutionary lines- it’s borderline transcendent. There’s a lot less of the whole crew this time around (and maybe with the original voice actors of Slinky and Potato Head, Jim Varney and Don Rickles, no longer with us, that’s for the best), as it’s mostly about Woody’s (Tom Hanks) existential crisis, now that he’s been passed on to a new kid, Bonnie, and no longer a favorite toy or room leader. Woody’s never gotten over Andy though and is desperately trying to be needed in some way, not ready to face his growing obsolescence and changing circumstances. He ponders these questions as he struggles to protect Bonnie’s new “toy,” Forky (Tony Hale), a spork she put googly eyes on and made at kindergarten orientation, who magically comes alive when she writes her name on his feet. He thinks he’s trash though and keeps trying to do away with himself, which Woody won’t allow. The weirdness of Forky being alive at all is kind of acknowledged but he really just represents Woody’s refusal to accept forced retirement, before he comes in contact with his lost love Bo Peep (Annie Potts). For those who thought Bo got shafted in the last film, this one does her a whole new justice, as she makes her triumphant comeback to become the franchise’s best ever female character in just one film. After an excellent pre-credits sequence showing how she was lost a decade earlier, Bo remade herself (and her sheep) as a lost toy gatherer, determined not sit on the shelf gathering dust, and and her reunion with Woody sparks a new desire in him to find something else to live for, as she reveals what other chapters there are to be explored, post-owners, in a toy’s theoretically eternal life. The film’s ending feels like a natural progression, and having Bo Peep be the catalyst for the next part of Woody’s ongoing journey is as sweet, tenderhearted and romantic as an animated film about inanimate objects could ever be. It feels like another perfect ending (although we’ve heard that before), which could hardly be expected for this franchise to pull off twice, and yet somehow they do it. Consistently entertaining, funny and visually dazzling throughout (this is probably the best looking Toy Story movie, with settings in a carnival and a richly detailed antique store), you can’t go wrong with this one.
SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME * * 1/2 (Dir. Jon Watts)
I actually liked 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, for being the teen comedy version of Marvel’s superhero movies. That made it stand out from the pack and with an adorable lead in Tom Holland as the best onscreen Peter Parker/Spidey to date, there’s a lot to like in this new sequel, which is both more and less of the things that made the first movie enjoyable. In fact, it’s really two different movies struggling to co-exist- one is a lovely teen hijinks movie that I could have very easily watched all of, and the other was a CGI mess that ties every plot line into the Avengers, Tony Stark, and the MCU. Yawn. Far From Home acknowledges all the deaths and the five year gap in existence that took place in the last Avengers movies, so that Peter and his whole class now have to repeat the school year and are going on a trip to Europe. On this trip, Peter wants to woo MJ (Zendaya) and just hang out with his friends, and there is a lot of high school romance, comedy and breezy lighthearted fun from this section of the movie, which again, could have and should have been the entire thing. But of course, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury has to show up and force Peter to work for him and a new superhero called Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), in dealing with the aftereffects of Tony Stark’s death and Peter’s obligation to live up to his image and become the new lead Avenger (apparently against his will). This ties in a lot of Iron Man heavy plot lines and characters (Jon Favreau’s Happy is even dating Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May now), essentially turning it into an Iron Man sequel, as very little actual Spider-Man mythology has made it into these new Spider-Man movies. Marvel really doesn’t want this iconic superhero to stand on his own for some reason, but leaving all that irritation aside, the bad guy plot that Peter keeps having to deal with is incredibly predictable, boring and unimpressive in the badly choreographed and generic CGI action scenes. I hated everything having to do with Mysterio, his agenda, the threats to the world and I kept wishing Peter could be distracted on this trip by bank robberies or heists, rather than all this pseudo-Avengers nonsense that depends on knowledge and interference of extraneous characters from other films. Give me the teen romance, give me Spider-Man himself and leave all that other stuff behind please. I want a Spider-Man movie, not Spider-Man as brought to you by Iron Man, but really Avengers adjacent continuation with the good stuff on the side. Half of this movie knows what it ought to be, and the other half keeps imposing itself on it and trying to shove it off the screen. In the end, it succeeds in doing so, which is a real shame, because there’s potential in that smothered film that really wants to get out and be allowed to breathe. Maybe someday it will be.
ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD * * * * (Dir. Quentin Tarantino)
Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre demands a fealty to a certain kind of style- one that his fans embrace and one that he’s been traditionally averse to deviate from. He’s a fan of the long monologue, where he speaks through his characters to go off on personal tangents about pop culture or society or whatever’s on his mind, followed by spurts of heightened violence, which you either relish or turn away from. He also plays with structure and the three act format, but most of his films aside from 1997’s Jackie Brown (the hidden gem in his filmography) have followed this template, more or less. But a funny thing happened in the making of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood- Tarantino became so enamored and immersed in the world that he was creating that he forgot to follow his usual song and dance. This is a different kind of film for him, one that evokes a time and place in rich, atmospheric detail, one that affectionately renders the love he has for late 1960’s Hollywood- the music, the cars, the billboards and boulevards, the television, the celebrities, and the haunting spectre of impending doom that one aspect of that culture (the Manson family) forebode. Two original characters, magnificently inhabited by Leonardo Dicaprio and Brad Pitt, embody this glimpse of the era, as has been TV star Rick Dalton and his stunt double/right hand man/blood brother Cliff Booth. Leo’s Dalton is a frustrated, fading, narcissistic actor reduced to guest spots on other shows the of day (mostly westerns) who drinks too much and dreams of a comeback, who lives on Cielo Drive, right next door to the home of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski. Brad is Cliff, who embodies coolness to the max, not fazed by career setbacks, content to live in a trailer with his faithful dog Brandi, but we’re told of rumors that he may have killed his wife and gotten away with it. Dicaprio and Pitt are instantly believable as these old buddies, with a natural chemistry that seemingly comes easy to them- the simplicity of their command of the camera and mega movie star wattage holds our attention on them both, whether together or apart, throughout this sprawling, meandering, day in the life of 1969. The third major character in this movie is Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, for whom Tarantino has a foot fetish and an obvious enchantment. He does an interesting thing with this figure, whose tragic fate made her most known for being first the victim of a horrific murder, and second the wife of director Roman Polanski. But Tarantino doesn’t turn her into one of his noted written characters. He doesn’t even give her much dialogue at all, compared to her screen time, which is ample. Instead, she becomes the haunted angel of the movie, a shadow who moves through her life with no idea what’s coming, a rising starlet with a whole future ahead of her, one that she didn’t get to live but one that Tarantino revives for a new audience to discover. Sharon is brought back to life on her own account, as Polanski is skimmed over and so is Manson, who does not weigh as a presence in this film, but for one creepy moment. This is a movie to get lost in, and there are so many details in the recreation of 1960’s Los Angeles that it will reward multiple viewings (think of it as a sister to Roma in that regard). But it also fits into Tarantino’s historical revenge fantasy trio (with Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained), and I’ll just say right now that the more you know about the Manson murders, the more you’ll get out of the uproarious and shocking ending, which serves as the slam dunk payoff to the relaxing two hour hangout we’ve just experienced. This sequence is Tarantino to its core, yet somehow more satisfying and comical than any of his usual bloody climaxes, of which this film is quite possibly his least violent ever. Even the post-climactic ending settles on a note of elegiac what-if memory, that serves as his tribute to the lost dream that was not only Sharon Tate, but the 60’s itself.